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End and Means: Democrats Have a Few Tricks Up Their Sleeves When Drawing New Legislative Maps

Charles N. Wheeler III
WUIS/Illinois Issues

Illinois voters gave state Democrats an unprecedented opportunity in last November’s election: the chance to draw new congressional and legislative districts as party mapmakers saw fit, presumably to guarantee party majorities for the next decade.

Never before since the U.S. Supreme Court imposed its one-person, one-vote redistricting standard in the 1960s has one party controlled both houses of the Illinois General Assembly and the governor’s office heading into the legislative session following a federal census. The Democrats’ good fortune was tempered a few months later, when the U.S. Census Bureau released the 2010 count. While Illinois’ overall population grew by about 400,000 in the last decade, the growth was not uniform. 

The Democratic stronghold of Chicago lost 200,000 residents, downstate counties grew by about that number, and the traditionally Republican-leaning collar counties gained roughly 400,000 residents, a 15 percent jump. (See “Spreading out,” page 22.) As a result, 27 of the 35 Senate districts now in Democratic hands collectively fall some 250,000 residents below the new population target of almost 217,500 per district, including 10 city-based districts that are shy more than 20,000 population. 

The numbers are much the same in the House, where 48 of the 64 Democrats are from districts with population numbers below the roughly 108,700 target. The total shortfall is almost 310,000 people, with 20 districts lacking more than 10,000.

Republicans, on the other hand, fare much better, with almost half of the GOP incumbents — 14 of 24 in the Senate and 24 of 54 in the House — with a surfeit of population.

So is it Mission Impossible for the Democratic cartographers, given the GOP-favoring numbers? Don’t bet on it.

Ten years ago, when the luck of the draw gave Democrats a free hand to craft new district boundaries, the party mapmakers faced a similar situation: Roughly three-quarters of the state’s 1 million population surge was in Chicago’s suburbs, while the city grew only by about 112,000 and downstate by some 160,000. As a result, 72 of 89 incumbent Democrats were in districts needing to grow, a fate shared by just 48 of 88 Republicans.

Despite the discouraging numbers, Democrats used creative cartography to fashion legislative maps that allowed them to elect majorities in both the Senate and the House in five straight elections, even withstanding the national Republican wave last November.

Reviewing how the mapmaking went 10 years ago should provide a rough guide of how Democrats will seek similar success in the next decade, despite census numbers that seemingly favor Republicans.

So how did they do it in 2001?

 By crafting Chicago and Cook County districts that ran far enough into GOP suburban territory to meet population targets without threatening Democratic control. Indeed, the current map includes 13 Senate districts and 21 House districts that overlap the city and adjacent suburbs, only three of which have GOP incumbents. Even House Speaker Michael J. Madigan hails from a district in which most 2010 voters were suburbanites.

Helping the Democrats create safe suburban districts in 2001 were the numbers of African-Americans who moved from the city’s west and south sides into nearby suburbs, a migration that continues, providing Democrats with a generally reliable voter base in formerly GOP terrain.

Expect Democrats to use a similar ploy this year, pushing city-linked districts out even farther into the suburbs, thus in turn elbowing Democratic-held seats in south and west Cook County out into the growing suburban areas.

Might this jeopardize Democratic control? Perhaps, but ...

 By taking advantage of the growing number of residents who identified themselves as Hispanics. The 2001 Democratic map used the roughly 625,000 increase in Latino residents to double the number of districts in which they composed the majority to four Senate and eight House districts, most rooted in Chicago but extending west and southwest to include suburban Hispanics.

While not as dramatic as recorded in 2000, Hispanic numbers grew by about 500,000 over the last decade, to more than 2 million statewide. Latinos now are the majority in four Senate districts —although short an average of 16,000 people each — and are between a quarter and a half of residents in an additional six districts. In the House, Hispanics are the majority in 10 House districts, all but one that are shy of population, and their numbers range from 49 percent to 25 percent in an additional 11.

All of the districts with significant Hispanic numbers are in the Chicago metropolitan area, including several in the collar counties. Given the historical pattern of Latino support for Democrats, fostered in part by the GOP hard-line on immigration issues, the Hispanic growth should provide some cushion as Democratic districts push out into the suburbs.

 By keeping large urban areas downstate in single House districts, rather than carving them up among several rural-dominated districts, as Republicans did when they had a free hand in drawing the boundaries in 1991.

Rockford, Springfield, Peoria and Champaign-Urbana each have more than enough residents for a single House district, as well as more Democratic voting habits than the surrounding countryside, so look for the Democratic map to draw House districts centered on each urban area. The mapmakers likely will follow the same pattern in the Metro East and Quad Cities, whose urban areas offer better Democratic prospects than the surrounding rural territory.

 By mapping incumbent Republicans into the same district, thus creating open districts that were easier for Democratic candidates to win. Democrats likely will use a similar tactic this time around, just as Republicans did when they controlled redistricting in 1991.

Using such tried-and-true tactics, Democratic mapmakers can be expected to meet their challenging task and produce new Senate and House maps for the Democrats’ legislative majorities to approve and Gov. Pat Quinn to sign into law by the June 30 deadline set in the Illinois Constitution.

Republicans are certain to go to court to try to block the Democratic plan, but here, too, the Democrats have the edge. The Constitution gives “original and exclusive jurisdiction” on redistricting to the Illinois Supreme Court — four of whose seven justices are Democrats.


So is it Mission Impossible for the?Democratic cartographers, given the GOP-favoring numbers? Don’t bet on it


Charles N. Wheeler III is director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois Springfield.

Illinois Issues, May 2011

The former director of the Public Affairs Reporting (PAR) graduate program is Professor Charles N. Wheeler III, a veteran newsman who came to the University of Illinois at Springfield following a 24-year career at the Chicago Sun-Times.
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